CHICAGO. After losing two years in a row (and winning just 46 games), Oklahoma City Thunder fans finally have something to celebrate.
The Thunder received the second overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft, the highest pick in franchise history. To sweeten the pot, they also have the 12th pick from the Los Angeles Clippers (from the Paul George trade) and the 30th pick, rounding out three first-round picks that promise to be very deep.
General manager Sam Presti is credited with creating the first OKC Big Three—Kevin Durant in 2007, Russell Westbrook in 2008, and James Harden in 2009 (the first two when the franchise was the Seattle SuperSonics). This young trio took the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012 and lost to the Miami Heat with three of their own superstars: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The following offseason, Harden wanted to be paid, but the Thunder didn’t, so he left. The long-term chemistry of the remaining duo of the future Hall of Famer did not work out in later years, and the team eventually disbanded.
The Thunder made one last attempt to build around Westbrook with George and then Chris Paul before Presti went into full overhaul mode. They didn’t leave empty-handed. After making 14 trades in 2019-20 and getting rid of all of his star players, Presti amassed 38 draft picks over the next seven years.
Thunder fans knew they needed to be patient. They have already seen Presti attract young talented players and create something special.
Even James praised Presti for what he does at OKC, telling reporters at All-Star Weekend, “The most valuable player there is Sam Presti. He is the most valuable player. I mean, Josh Giddy is great. But Sam Presti, I don’t get it.” for talents. [Kevin Durant]Russia [Westbrook]James [Harden], Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Josh Giddy and the list goes on and on. This guy is damn good.”
The Thunder acquired up-and-coming young superstar Shai Gilgeus-Alexander in a George trade in 2019 and took the undrafted Lou Dort that same year. In 2021, the Thunder had the highest pick in the draft since 2009 and selected the Australian defenseman Giddy with the sixth overall pick. Giddy exceeded all expectations this season and was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for the first three months before pulling out in February with a hip injury.
The young core trio still needed to be surrounded by a few figures, most notably the post size. And not just the size, but also the versatility and craftsmanship. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, The Thunder aggressively tried to advance in the 2021 draft to draft Evan Mobley with the No. 3 pick. The Cavaliers held the pick and took Mobley.
“Last year they tried to promote Evan Mobley to three,” Woinarovsky said on his podcast. “I think if the Thunders had the No. 1 pick last year, they would have picked Mobley. And he was there at three o’clock, they couldn’t get him out of Cleveland.
Again, Presti was patient. There’s a lot of star potential in the draft this year: Jabari Smith is 6ft 10in, Chet Holmgren is 7ft and Paolo Banchero is 6ft 10in. All three fill a much-needed frontcourt void in OKC.
No. 2 pick may actually be better than No. 1 this year, as there is no clear overall No. 1 pick as in years past. Whoever the Orlando Magic doesn’t take, the Thunder will pick up.
Oklahoma City options at 2nd and 12th
Basically, there are four players in the game for the Thunder’s second pick: Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, and Jayden Ivey. Smith and Holmgren are eligible for the first and second picks, but there were rumors at the draft combine in Chicago this week that the Thunder really loved Ivey and he could be Ja Morant 2.0.
Let’s break down the best scenarios for peaks two and 12.
No. 2 Jabari Smith, no. 12 Great Branham
Smith is the best shot in this class of draft, hitting 42% of depth in a year at Auburn, and he has a frame that will fill well in the next couple of years. His natural sense of the game and tough mentality will bode well for any organization and he definitely has potential for an All-Star Game.
Branham could be one of the most active players this week at the mill after interviews with the teams. Many teams love his 6’5 height and he’s versatile enough to play with or without the ball.
#2 Chet Holmgren, #12 Johnny Davis
Holmgren is called a unicorn for a reason. There have never been prospects like him. While his lean physique at 195 pounds is a concern, it will be hard for teams to miss his potential. He is an elite shot blocker and handles the ball like a defender, distracting players from dribbling or picking up the ball himself in transition.
Davis is a level-headed guard who handles many small things very well. He doesn’t shoot as well as Ivey, but he can be the best passer on the lane and off screen.
#2 Jaden Ivey, #12 Mark Williams
Ivey would be the most unexpected choice at number 2, but far from a bad option. History has shown (ahem, 2019 with Zion Williamson and Morant, and 2018 with Marvin Bagley instead of Trae Young) that there is tremendous value in picking up a highly skilled defenseman over the obvious superstar of an unerring forward.
If Thunder takes Ivey here, he still has room to size up later in the lottery with 7ft 1in Williams. He is an excellent rim protector with a wingspan of 7ft 5in. Williams has improved a lot from his freshman season to sophomore at Duke, so there’s still room for improvement. He will bring athleticism and size to the post next to 7-foot 190-pound Alexei Pokusevsky.
No. 2 Paolo Banchero, no. 12 Ochai Agbaji
Of the three top picks, Banchero passes the vision test and can make a significant difference to any team with his physical presence and the way he moves with the ball.
Agbaji was a four-year-old in Kansas and led the Jayhawks to a national title last season. He is a winner and that experience matters in the recovery process. The 6’5″ security guard is likely to be the oldest player on the lottery and can be immediately put on any team with his height and experience.
Thunder strategy moving forward
This could be the draft class that breaks the Thunder tanking trend.
Yes, French phenom Victor Wembanyama, G League Ignite star Scoot Henderson, and Overtime Elite twins Amen and Ausar Thompson will appear next year. But this year could be the part that brings it all together for Oklahoma City.
Going forward, Presti still has options with 34 remaining draft picks in the next six years. Gradually, Presti restored this team. Brick by brick. Draft after draft. It’s finally paying off and this could be the draft class that changes everything for Thunder.